May 2, 2022
The flower head of the fully grown decurrent false aster (Boltonia decurrens) resembles a daisy. Photo by Michael Budd/USFWS.

A Rare Flower Makes a Comeback

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By Andrea Torres

Since The Nature Conservancy began work at Spunky Bottoms (Brown County), the landscape has been transformed. Once drained and used for farmland, this land is now a thriving wetland landscape that becomes richer in plant and animal life every year. But we didn’t do this work alone. We are grateful for the many past and present partners, scientists and land stewards who have dedicated their efforts to restoring this area and protecting the many life forms that call Spunky Bottoms home.

Two people stand next to one another with a tall plant in-between them. Each person holds a stem of the plant  in front of their faces. In the background are trees.
Dr. Marian Smith and Gwen Kolb: Dr. Marian Smith (left) and Gwen Kolb (right) at Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge in 2005. The two worked closely to research and restore the rare false aster decurrent. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

One of these native species that once thrived at both Spunky Bottoms and Emiquon Preserve was a species of flora I like to think of as ‘the little flower that could’: the decurrent false aster (Boltonia decurrens). The rare, daisy-like flower was only recognized as its own species in 1985, and only grows along the Illinois River, although the historic range included Illinois and Missouri. As more Illinois River floodplains were converted to farmland, the aster’s habitat was lost, and populations of this native species along with it. It was added to the federally threatened species list in 1988 and is now protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Botanist, researcher, educator and author Dr. Marian Smith became the recognized authority on the life history, management and recovery of the decurrent false aster. Dr. Smith championed conservation efforts for the plant throughout the 1980s and 1990s through her teachings, workshops, and many presentations until her passing. She also worked closely with Gwen Kolb, a private lands biologist for USFWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Illinois, to restore the large decurrent false aster populations that hadn’t been seen since the early 20th century. With more than 16 scientific papers under her belt—many written in collaboration with her students and Kolb—her advocacy and expertise on land management practices, propagation methodologies, and innovative seed storage methods laid the foundation for future conservation flora-focused efforts beyond the decurrent false aster.

A person wearing cold weather gear broadcasts seed with one hand and holds the bucket of seed with the other on a chilly day on a wetland. In the background is a horizon of trees agains a bright blue sky.
Decurrent False Aster Seeding: Denim Perry, Restoration Ecologist for TNC in Illinois, spreads decurrent false aster seeds at Spunky Bottoms Preserve. Photo by Mike Budd/USFWS.

Guided by the extensive research from Dr. Smith, in 2020 conservationists began working towards promoting the regrowth of the decurrent false aster at Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms by recreating the conditions from the time the plant had thrived. With the help of the USFWS Partners program, TNC has removed invasive woody species growing in the flower’s natural habitat, then reintroduced decurrent false aster seeds into its new, yet old, home. Conservation efforts have primarily consisted of using techniques that mimic the river’s old natural flood cycle, such as utilizing a levy to assure the aster’s soil remains moist. Another method being used is known as discing, or loosening the soil with a series of discs to re-create previously common natural disturbances that encourages the decurrent false aster to grow. With these efforts, the decurrent false aster seeds provided by the Wetlands Initiative and planted this year will hopefully help the flower bloom into its former glory in only a few years’ time.

One of the many lessons Dr. Smith left behind is the vital importance of passion and advocacy in conservation, along with the necessity for collaboration in this line of work. Only together can we ensure that rare species such as the decurrent false aster continue to thrive, but that people continue to do the same right alongside it. 


Andrea Torres is a Digital Content Marketing Specialist for The Nature Conservancy based in Chicago. Her goal is to use her passion for storytelling to uplift and amplify the incredible work done by conservationists, community leaders and many others who work to protect people and nature. When she’s not writing, she’s probably eating Hot Cheetos (con Limón) or snuggling her old lady mini dachshund. She can be reached at andrea.torres@tnc.org or at (630) 903-8231. To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s preserves and conservation work, visit nature.org/Illinois.

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